Here's a good way to ruin your afternoon. Go on the Internet and find any discussion thread that brings up overweight people (like this or this one). Stand back and watch as a crowd absolutely rants about how incredibly easy it is to lose weight, and how incredibly lazy you have to be to get fat. The conclusion will be that being fat is literally a moral failing and the sign of a bad, disgusting human being. It's to the point of actual anger and violence directed toward the overweight in real life -- the fat are one of the last groups people can openly hate.
In at least four states, we can legally hunt this man.
But now take any of those people and try using the same logic with their weaknesses:
"You're struggling to get by on your income? I can't imagine how lazy a person would have to be to not be wealthy. Just go out there and make money! Duh!"
"You don't have a girlfriend? I can't imagine how much of an antisocial dick you have to be to not get a beautiful woman to love you. How hard is it to get off your ass and be a dynamic, sexy, personable human being?"
"Seriously dude, just stop having a micropenis."
"You drink alcohol? Or smoke cigarettes? Or smoke pot? Why don't you try not doing those things?"
"You suffer from depression or anxiety? Uh, have you tried not?"
Now watch as they rattle off ten thousand extenuating circumstances for their embarrassing problem (the economy is bad, women are bitches, I have an addiction) while completely rejecting all of the similar causes of obesity.
"My compulsive, life-shortening habit is completely different from overeating. Namely, it's much sexier."
It's called the fundamental attribution error.
It's a universal thought process that says when other people screw up, it's because they're stupid or evil. But when we screw up, it's totally circumstantial. Like if you notice a coworker showing up to work high on mescaline, it's because he's an out-of-control peyote hound. But if you show up at work high on mescaline, it's because you had a flat tire and you needed the distraction.
The process feels so obvious when explained -- we simply lack information about the context in which the other person screwed up, and so we fill it in with our own. If we've never been fat, then we assume the fat guy feels the exact same level of hunger as we do, that his metabolism is the same, that his upbringing is the same, that the spare time and energy he can devote to exercise is the same as ours. We think that both of us faced the exact same fork in the road and only one of us chose to eat churros.
About 40 of these a week for two years are all that separate you from that guy who had to be airlifted out of his living room.
The reality is, of course, that you were on completely different roads. The assumption that everyone's circumstances are identical is so plainly wrong as to be borderline insane, but everyone does it. Pundits and politicians alike mock the unemployed as lazy, even though their own data shows that for every five unemployed people, there is only one open job. "I don't understand, can't you all just become radio talk show hosts like me?"
So During Your Next Argument, Remember ...
Forget about talking politics with your crazy shop teacher for a second. If you're consistently doing this when arguing with your significant other, that's a good sign that the relationship is dying. Listen for it -- when you forgot to do the dishes, it was because you had a thousand other things on your mind. When she forgot, it's because she doesn't care. If you find yourself automatically dismissing your partner's explanations as "excuses," you've gone to a bad place from which most relationships do not return.
"You didn't take out the trash this morning. Is it because you don't love me anymore?"
Here's how things would work in a perfect world: You and your friend are on opposing sides of an issue. After reaching an impasse, you pull out a piece of information so precise, so compelling, so perfect, that your buddy does a 180 and completely changes his mind. You high five and skip off into the distance.
And this probably has happened ... as long as it was a subject that neither of you particularly cared about. But if it was some emotionally charged issue, like abortion? God help you.
Covering your mouth is the first step in any successful dialogue.
Let's go back to the beginning for a moment, and the theory that people figured out how to build arguments as a form of verbal bullying rather than a method of spreading correct information. That means that there are actually two reasons somebody might be arguing with you: because they actually want to get you to think the right thing, and because they're trying to establish dominance over you to lower your status in the tribe (or office or forum) and elevate their own. That means there's a pretty severe cost to being on the wrong side of an issue completely separate from the issue itself.
Now think about the way people treat the two sides of a debate like teams. Not just political parties; remember how one side of the Leno vs. Conan debate referred to themselves as "Team Coco," or how Twilight fans refer to their factions as "Team Edward" vs. "Team Jacob."
Then note how may debates involve people jumping into an issue in which they have nothing at stake (only a fraction of the millions of the "Team Coco" people supporting Conan on the Internet actually watch his show), just so they have the chance to join a team.
Now think of how much it would hurt them to have to change teams.
"I looked like a fool on the Internet. This is my only path now."
That is why confirmation bias exists. We read a news article that supports what we believe, and we add it to the "I'm right about this" column. News articles that contradict what we believe are dismissed. We make up a reason -- maybe the source is part of the conspiracy from the other side or whatever it takes to make sure the "I'm wrong about this" column remains empty.
Researchers have done experiments where they hooked up people's brains to scanners and then made them read a story pointing out something stupid their favorite candidate said. The logical parts of the brain stayed quiet, while the emotional parts of the brain lit up. Their brains were weighing the story, not based on what it logically meant for their position, but on the emotional/social consequences of that position being wrong.
"You've pushed me past the breaking point, Snopes.com!"
Then, once the brain had decided that this news story being right would mean pain and humiliation for the reader, it told the logical part, "Figure out a way to use your 'logic' stuff to make this pain go away." The next day, you probably heard those test subjects at the coffee shop going on and on about how biased the press is against their guy.
So During Your Next Argument, Remember ...
You won't remember this. You're hard-wired to remain entrenched, and the Internet makes it worse because your political beliefs are pasted all over Facebook and wherever else you post your opinions. Backing down means going back on all that. It means letting down your team. Every inch of your psychology will fight it.
Technology gives us the power to be wrong forever.
The scary part? The same logical fallacy that prevents that crazy guy who keeps predicting the end of the world over and over from admitting maybe he was full of shit is the same fallacy that drives partisan politics and, therefore, government policy. Sleep tight, voters! Evolution is working against us.
For more things that you're incorrect about, check out 7 Basic Things You Won't Believe You're All Doing Wrong and The 6 (Wrong) Questions Men Love to Ask About Women.